How to prepare for the TESOL certification exam

Congratulations, you’ve completed your TESOL training and are now ready to take a TESOL exam. You’ve reached the final hurdle!

Be careful.

Many people find the exam to more difficult than they originally expect.

Likewise, when you consider the vast amount of knowledge you have accumulated in the months leading up to this point, you may begin to realize the magnitude of the task in front of you.

Fear not, here is a handy guide for preparing for your TESOL certification exam.

First let’s look at the makeup of the tests. And yes, we say ‘tests’ because there is more than one.

Typically a TESOL certification test is divided into four distinct sections.

  • Foundations of linguistics and learning
  • Planning, implementing, and managing of instruction
  • Language assessment (judging progress and tests)
  • Cultural and professional aspects of the job

Each section will be discussed in greater detail.

Foundations of Linguistics

Time to brush up on your Chomsky.

This portion of the test will assess the extent to which you understand the basics of languages and learning. For many people, this is the most interesting part of TESOL training; the applied linguistics.

Do you know your international phonetic alphabet? How familiar are you with linguistic theory, the intrinsic nature of grammar, morphology, syntax, and dialectology?

If you’re lost already, you need to review.

Likewise, it’s important to make sure you understand your own language, make sure your technical grammar is up to snuff.

Can you convert active voice to passive voice? What is a gerund? Can you explain these ideas in a way that is accessible to your students?

Foundations of learning

This is a test of your pedagogy skills. With many things in education, you can expect the theories to be numerous. Any ESL course should have taught you the basics.

Do you know Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences? Similarly, how is your methodology?

Being familiar with both antiquated methods such as the army method and grammar translation methods, as well as modern methods: jazz chants and total physical response, will be very useful.

Understanding TBT (task based teaching) is also important as many modern ESL programs are centered on this.

Planning and applying instruction

As you’ve learned, a large part of ESL teaching (and teaching in general) is really about preparation.

Your TESOL exam will want to test that you can adequately manage your time in the classroom, and utilize it fully towards the task of teaching

Lesson plans should be orderly with multiple points of entry; something for the best students, as well as those who are struggling, while still teaching to the middle.

One suggestion is to use the ‘beginnings middles and ends’ style lesson plans.

However, it’s advised you use the style taught to you during your TESOL certification training.


Assessment usually makes up a smaller portion of the test than the above mentioned sections. This is vitally important to your abilities and qualifications as a teacher.

Many of your students will be seeking English lessons with the intention of passing the TOEFL or IELTS test afterwards.

Being familiar with these types of tests, and their methods of analysis is crucial. Furthermore, as a teacher it will also be necessary for you to design your own tests.

This means being able to judge improvements in speaking, reading, writing, and listening skills.

Often students improve slower than expected, and therefore you should be adept at judging subtle differences.

Study the recommended assessment techniques suggested by your teacher trainer, it will certainly be mentioned on the test.

Cultural and professional

considerations of the Job

Working in ESL almost invariably means working with people from other cultures. And while this profession does not typically attract culturally insensitive individuals, this examination is going to ask that you prove your awareness.

There will be the basic considerations, understanding that people are going to have different rules and ideas about the role of English in their lives.

For example, some may be learning English as a career necessity, while other may be learning it out of a genuine passion.

Likewise, many people’s cultural identity is strongly tied to their language, therefore it may be best to avoid immersion environments which could be perceived as villainizing their first language.

The test may also ask you about culturally insensitive games (perhaps games like hangman in Iran or the use of red pens in China).

Professional considerations also go beyond what you’d expect.

As a teacher, your job is partially to advocate. You need to be able to make unbiased judgments about a child’s well-being, which the parents may find difficult.

Expect there to be questions regarding advocacy on the TESOL exam.

Now that we’ve discussed the content of the test, let’s create a strategy for approaching the material.

Give yourself time

As you can see from the above, there’s a lot that goes into successful teaching and the test will reflect this.

Don’t let this TESOL certification test be something you cram for the night before. Unlike many things in your education, this test will have real and instant effects on your career (and likely in your immediate future).

You should give yourself plenty of time to prepare.

Find practical applications for your skill-set

in preparation for the exam

This test will analyze your understanding of methodology and pedagogy. Therefore, it helps to find places to practice. Try to find substitute teaching or daycare work where you can apply some of your methods. If all else fails, utilize a nephew or cousin.

Finally: Know the arguments

ESL is politically and technically complex.

Some teachers swear by certain methods, while other swear at them.

Being prepared for the TESOL certification exam means being thoroughly fluent in the language and ideology of TESOL.

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